Republican states banning school mask mandates may face legal action from the Biden administration, after President Biden on Wednesday ordered Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to "assess all available tools" which could be used against states preventing schools from forcing kids to mask up.
In response, the Education Department suggested using its civil rights arm to fight policies in Florida, Texas, Iowa and other GOP-led states which have implemented restrictions on mask mandates, according to the Associated Press.
"Some state governments have adopted policies and laws that interfere with the ability of schools and districts to keep our children safe during in-person learning," Biden said in an executive order, which claims that some states "have gone so far as to try to block school officials" from implementing mask mandates.
It amounts to the sharpest threat yet against states that so far have ignored admonishments from the White House during the surging pandemic. The move also injects the federal government into mounting culture wars that have turned schools into battlegrounds in a debate over masks.
In an announcement on its website, the Education Department said policies that ban mask mandates could amount to discrimination if they lead to unsafe conditions that prevent students from attending school. The agency can launch its own investigations into potential violations, and it also responds to civil rights complaints from parents and the public. -Associated Press
Last week Biden said he doesn't think he personally has the authority to override governors' prohibitions, but urged them to "at least get out of the way" of federal policy.
"The department has the authority to investigate any state educational agency whose policies or actions may infringe on the rights of every student to access public education equally," said Cardona in a statement, adding that states which ban mask mandates are "needlessly placing students, families and educators at risk."
According to the report, the Office for Civil Rights can slap states with a range of sanctions, up to and including a total loss of federal funding for education in the cases of civil rights violations.
In Florida, state education officials are weighing whether to withhold the salaries of superintendents which are defied Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) order to ban school mask requirements. At least seven other states have instituted similar prohibitions.
While most states allow school districts to determine their own mask policies, some have fallen on either side of the debate. Some including California, Louisiana and Virginia have moved to require masks in schools for most students this fall. In other states that have barred mandates, leaders say it should be up to families to decide.
Protesters who oppose mask mandates have taken to state and local school board meetings in recent weeks, in some cases derailing the meetings. -Associated Press
According to a letter sent by Cardona to Florida and Texas last week, their prohibitions may violate the American Rescue Plan, which allocated $123 billion to schools to help them return to in-person learning. Similar letters were sent to Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah.
"Let me be clear," he wrote, "this department will continue to use every tool in our toolbox to protect the health and safety of students and educators and to maximize in-person learning as the new school year begin."
Meanwhile, the Biden administration may want to think twice about going into battle over mask mandates, as the science is largely not on their side.